Friday, August 19, 2011

Tease Your Reader With Joking Clues

Today we'll continue with our Mystery Plotting series. As we discussed in JK Rowling's Sleight of Hand, while laying her most important clues, JKR diverts the readers’ attention elsewhere. There are various methods she employs for this diversion. The one we'll examine now is to distract the reader's attention with humor.

Jokes Hiding Clues:
One of JKR's simplest techniques is to place the clue in a line of dialogue that seems to be nonsensical or a joke, which focuses the reader on the humor rather than the clue, and to make whatever that character says seem unimportant. Ron is especially good for the joking bit.

[Harry]  “I wouldn’t mind knowing how Riddle got an award for special services to Hogwarts either.”

   “Could’ve been anything,” said Ron. “Maybe he got thirty O.W.L.s or saved a teacher from the giant squid. Maybe he murdered Myrtle; that would’ve done everyone a favor...” (p. 232, CoS)

Ron is joking, but hits the truth dead-on. However, there are two sly Rowling tricks sidetracking the reader from taking note of the clue--not only is it an obvious joke, but it’s also third in a list of increasingly absurd jokes, and therefore the most ridiculous, in Ron’s point of view.

George and Fred are always good for a joke...and thus are prime candidates for hiding a few crucial clues.  Through the twins' clowning, JK Rowling hit the reader over the head early on with a direct clue as to what lay within the Chamber of Secrets:

"Oh, get out of the way, Percy," said Fred. "Harry's in a hurry."

"Yeah, he's off to the Chamber of Secrets for a cup of tea with his fanged servant," said George, chortling.

Ginny didn't find it amusing either.

"Oh, don't," she wailed every time Fred asked Harry loudly who he was planning to attack next, or when George pretended to ward Harry off with a large clove of garlic when they met.
Fred and George jokingly hit the reader with not one, but two clues.  Not only does JKR hint at the basilisk through them, she also shows Ginny with a stronger than normal emotional reaction -- clearly because of her guilty conscience!

Jokes Hiding Crucial Upcoming Information:
Jo is even good at using the twins' comic antics to hint at important clues a whole book (or four) in advance:

   "Yeah, Montague tried to do us during break," said George.
   "What do you mean, 'tried'?" said Ron quickly.
   "He never managed to get all the words out," said Fred, "due to the fact that we forced him head-first into that Vanishing Cabinet on the first floor."
   Hermione looked very shocked.
   "But you'll get into terrible trouble!"
   "Not until Montague reappears, and that could take weeks, I dunno where we sent him," said Fred coolly.
LOL! Those crazy twins!

But...wait...You mean there's a Vanishing Cabinet inside Hogwarts?! And the twins don't know where it leads?  And...didn't Harry hide in a mysterious large, black cabinet in Borgin and Burkes way back in Chamber of Secrets? (In case you didn't catch it -- those Vanishing Cabinets are the means by which Draco lets the Death Eaters into Hogwarts in Half-Blood Prince).

Yes, here, through jokes, JKR teases her reader to pay attention to these cabinets. They just might be important in a story to come!

Truthful Statements Uttered as if Ridiculous:
Another type of teasing clue comes from Dumbledore, who showed a different version of how to spin this technique at the end of Prisoner of Azkaban.  JKR uses this wisest of mentors to state the truth in a matter-of-fact manner that makes it seem ridiculous.

In the face of Snape’s rage over the escape of Sirius Black, Dumbledore calmly, and without lying states, “Unless you are suggesting that Harry and Hermione are able to be in two places at once, I’m afraid I don’t see any point in troubling them further” (p. 420).

Dumbledore makes the reality of Harry and Hermione truly having been in two places at the same time seem impossible, and even though the reader is “in” on this clue, it’s a blatant sign-post to pay attention to other such well-laid lines where the reader may not be as “in the know.”

While these jokes and ridiculous statements are not the slyest of JK Rowling's clues, they are effective.  Many readers skimmed right by the jokes of Ron and the twins.  While they had an idea that some of the things they clowned around about might be clues, because there were so many ridiculous things they said, it was hard to know WHICH.

What Can You Do?:
As a writer, use every possible technique and character quirk available to you to tease your reader with information you've withheld.  Got a funny character? (And I hope you do!) Why not put them to good use to once or twice casually drop an important clue?  Got a wise mentor who other characters will believe implicitly? Why not have them state the truth as if it were ridiculous?

But be careful! The reader will quickly catch on to this relatively easy technique, and then it will become less effective.

Have you used jokes or ridiculous statements in your writing to hide crucial information?

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